The last 17-year-old pure offensive talent that I can remember dominating in the same way Clayton Keller did this past year was Patrick Kane. Both were tiny wizards with the puck. Both set NTDP scoring records. The biggest difference between the two is that Keller was born two months in front of the NHL Draft age cutoff, while Kane was born two months after the age cutoff.
Kane wasn't the consensus first overall pick coming out of the NTDP. His numbers were insane, but I don't think scouts knew quite how to judge those numbers. But because he was a late birthdate, he had aged out of that program and went to the OHL for his draft year, where he continued his scoring domination and became the top overall pick.
I feel like Keller is in a similar situation. He doesn't get talked about as a potential top-five pick in this Draft because people aren't quite sure how to judge his tremendous stats. He doesn't have the benefit of getting to run rampant over another year prior to the Draft. That may be his loss, but a huge gain for whichever team ends up with him, because they're going to be getting a sensational player at a tremendous value.
Player: Clayton Keller
Team: US NTDP U18
Height: 5'10" Weight: 168 lbs.
Stats; 62 games, 37 goals, 70 assists, 107 points
Final NHL Central Scouting rank: 9th among North American skaters
What I Like:
Keller is the all-time leading career scorer for the US NTDP. That is a huge feat. You're probably on a first name basis with the guys he had to pass to set that mark: Phil, Auston, "Allegedly". The one outlier among the top of that list is Jeremy Bracco, who was a bit of a different type of player. But for the most part, you'd take a guy putting up those type of numbers inside the top-5 of any Draft in a heartbeat.
-Incredible vision and hockey sense
What makes Keller special is the way that he sees the whole ice and understands where everyone is, and where there is open space. He finds open teammates for passes or plays the puck into space so his team keeps possession in a way that no other player in this Draft, and few players that I've ever seen can do. This spinning no-look pass right onto the tape for a one-timer goal is one of my favorites
One glance over his left shoulder and he evaluates 1) where his teammate is 2) where the D covering his teammate is standing 3) the stick position of the defenseman covering him and 4)how to get the puck to said teammate. All in a split second.
Watching that play on film, with an overhead angle is one thing. Being able to evaluate, process, and do it from ice level is amazing.
-Soft hands and good passer
Keller's puck-handling ability and ability to pass the puck are exceptional. In this first clip, he feathers a nice pass right onto the stick of a teammate on a 2-on-1 for a great chance.
In this second clip, he has the quickness to pull the puck back at the last second when the window in front of him closes and make a quick pass across the ice to a lane that opened up.
-Underrated skating and shooting ability
If there's a knock on Keller, it's usually about how fast he is and his ability to shoot the puck. It's true that because of his size, neither of those are elite skills, but I think they're far better than he is frequently given credit for. He's really quick and anticipates openings and opportunities very well, which makes up for whatever he lacks in pure straight line speed. He's also so good with the puck on his stick that he's just as fast with the puck as he is without it, which allows him to do things like this:
And while he doesn't have a big, booming slap shot, he has a pretty decent wrist shot that he's good at picking the top corner with. His shot should improve with time as he develops more upper body strength.
What I Don't Like:
-Can it translate?
That's always the question with smaller players like Keller. They can dominate against younger talent, but will they be able to pull off the same stuff against the biggest, fastest, most talented players in the world? For Keller's part, it's worth noting that he scored at an Eichel/Matthews rate against NCAA competition this year, which bodes well for his ability to adjust to bigger, more defensive-oriented styles of play. There is perhaps an extra bit of risk with Keller, however, just because he's probably not going to become your third line winger if he doesn't pan out as a scorer.
Ever since the World U18s, I've had Keller at fourth overall on my list and felt pretty confident about it. I really think he's the best player available after the Big Three. Odds are high--actually, pretty much guaranteed--that he won't go that high however. Most mock drafts have Keller going between 10-15. I doubt he lasts that long though. I see him going somewhere between picks 7 and 10, and whoever gets him might be getting the steal of the Draft.
Keller is a scorer, pure and simple.It's very, very rare to find a player that can see the ice the way that he does. He's got potential as a top line center and one that produces a lot of points, especially if he ends up paired with a big shooter like he was with Kieffer Bellows this past season. He'll play next season at Boston University, and should have success like he did this past year. After that, he might be ready to compete for a roster spot on the team that drafts him, and within a few years, should be a top offensive threat.